Spring 2008 - Volume 11 Number 2
|Reviews||Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies
Boulder CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008
To hear American conservatives tell it, higher education is in the hands of liberal elitists who hate America. Whether it is former members of the Weather Underground such as Bernadette Dorhn teaching at the Northwestern University Law School or Mark Rudd closing a career teaching mathematics at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque, the scene is set for those committed to the “culture wars.” They have plenty of what passes for evidence. Liberals, they insist, dominate the faculties of all the most prestigious schools. Academics such as the former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill are allowed to write “treasonous” essays about the victims of September 11, 2001 being complicit in their own fate because they were the “technocratic corps at the very heart of America's global financial empire,” and Churchill was only fired six years later for violations of the University’s research ethics policies. Teachers, it is widely believed, are largely responsible for irresponsible programs in which women’s studies, ethnic studies and postcolonial studies replace serious, patriotic national history. And, oh yes, they are also to blame for political correctness and the many depravities associated with “secular humanism.” It is quite a lot to put at the doorstep of chalk wielders.
John K. Wilson has had enough!
In Patriotic Correctness, he not only defends the contentious concept of academic freedom, not as special permission for scholars to hold and disseminate outrageous opinions, but as an essential element in the valued contribution of education toward social improvement by holding all received wisdom up to the light of vigourous interrogation. And, if that does not persuade the sceptics, there is always the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
Wilson, however, is not just interested in protecting educators and education from their detractors; he wishes to pose a counter-argument. Whereas right-wing opinion leaders insist that the vast majority of academics are engaged in the project of subverting the nation’s youth by politicizing the classroom and disseminating anti-American and anti-Christian doctrines, Wilson insists that his opponents have their facts wrong. The real propagandists are those who have undertaken a campaign against academic freedom in support of a rigid political agenda of their own. They also employ tactics that will make fair-minded people cringe.
A special target of Wilson’s invective is ex-student radical David Horowitz. Since abandoning the radical left, he has become a crusader for the radical right. One of his chief initiatives is the “Academic Bill of Rights,” an Orwellian document (co-sponsored by outgoing Vice-President Dick Cheney’s wife Lynne) which has formed the basis for a number of legislative proposals to empower students who perceive a liberal bias in their professors’ lectures, and provide them with the basis to sue their teachers and their schools for presenting misguided or misleading ideas. Among them, presumably, are those whom Horowitz has called “academic radicals and the ant-war campus Left [who] have lent their support to Islamic terrorists, while campaigning against the efforts of democracies like Israel and the United States to defend themselves.” As well, with the incentive of a cash payment, Horowitz recruits young folk to rat out their teachers by clandestinely taping them and turning the results over to Horowitz. His approach is nicely captured in the cry that adorns the cover of his book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America (2006). This is it: “Terrorists, racists and communistsyou know them as The Professors.” As an introduction to the re-birth of McCarthyism (Joseph, not Eugene), this pretty much says it all.
Excessive complaints of victimization by “loony, lefty, liberals” are systematically undermined. Unsubstantiated charges of political bias in grading students are dismembered. Even accusations of liberal domination are taken apart, as Wilson shows how the range of academic opinion is far broader and much less intense than the conservative critics say. Of course, Wilson does not go so far as to insist that the liberals on campus are justified in holding to their beliefs because, after all, they are true, but his riposte to the religious fundamentalists, the xenophobes and the purveyors of what Richard Hofstadter famously called the “paranoid style in American politics” makes it hard to resist such a conclusion.
Not everyone will be impressed by some aspects of Wilson’s book. Sometimes Wilson’s own rhetoric descends to the level of a screed and, in places, his anger is palpable. Still, he provides a meticulously documented argument (1233 footnotes in only 214 pages of text) and, considering the significance of his cause, a little hyperbole can probably be forgiven.
Patriotic Correctness paints a far different picture of American academia than is common among those who fear open minds and the free exchange of opinion. As someone who has resided in the US, taught and studied in American universities and visited the country many dozens of times since I first set foot on US soil in at the outset of the Eisenhower presidency, John K. Wilson’s portrait seems more authentic.
Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at email@example.com
The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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